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Joan Allen talks 'The Waverly Gallery,' working with Elaine May, more

Joan Allen arrives at the 72nd annual Tony

Joan Allen arrives at the 72nd annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 10. Credit: AP / Invision / Evan Agostini

Joan Allen is having too many conversations at once.

But you know how that can be, when you’re surrounded by relatives and everyone’s talking on top of each other. That familiar banter is part of what makes Kenneth Lonergan’s play “The Waverly Gallery” sound so real. But it’s been mighty tough to get right, Allen admits.

The play opens on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre on Oct. 25. It follows the travails of a Manhattan psychiatrist (Allen), her dutiful son (Lucas Hedges, who starred in Lonergan’s film “Manchester by the Sea”), therapist husband (David Cromer), and her forceful mother, Gladys (the legendary comedienne Elaine May). Gladys is going deaf, and suffers from dementia -- though she’s still running her Greenwich Village art gallery, entertaining a quirky young artist (Michael Cera), and driving her daughter crazy.

Allen, 62, is known for playing forceful women herself, on stage (winning a Tony Award for her Broadway debut in “Burn This”) and screen (“The Contender,” “Room,” the “Bourne” films). She recently spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

I love those moments onstage when you’re having a conversation with your mother, who can’t hear you, and another conversation with your son, and then your husband walks in and starts asking you questions -- it’s like any family in America. But how do you actually make it sound so natural? Do you sometimes improvise or…?

It’s all Ken Lonergan  He crafted all those overlaps. He has an explanation in the script basically saying, I realize this isn’t easy but the closer you can achieve the way I’ve written it the better it will play. It’s been a lot of practicing. Repeat, repeat. The more we do it, the more organic it becomes.

What’s it like having Elaine May as a mother?

Oh my gosh. It’s…beyond. Beyond. She’s extraordinary. So organic and natural and believable.

She and Mike Nichols were renowned for their comedy routines in the 1960s. And, of course, she’s written and directed films since then but we haven’t really seen her onstage in a while.

I admired her from when I first started acting in my twenties with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company (in Chicago). I used to do Nichols and May routines to fundraise for the theater. I’d listen to those routines and try to memorize her cadence exactly.  She’s just an icon. There’s nobody like her.

There’s a line early in the play that describes your family onstage. “We’re liberal Upper West Side atheistic Jewish intellectuals.” Is that pretty much the polar opposite of the Midwestern family you grew up in?

It is quite different, yes.  To my great gratitude. I was married for many years to Peter Friedman, a wonderful actor (who is Jewish). Our daughter was bat mitzvahed. She went through Hebrew school. And my current partner is from a Jewish family. So… (She chuckles.) I’ve had a lot of exposure to Jewish culture, meals, seders -- that’s helped me immensely.

This play is so intensely about family -- did it get you thinking about your own parents and how they dealt with aging?

My father passed away at, like, 87. He’s been gone for 22 years now. He didn’t suffer from this -- but my mother lived to be almost 97, and in the last two and a half years of her life she was in the throes of dementia. Hers was different from (what we see in this play). Hers was violent. Extremely paranoid. She had to be on medications to keep her from harming herself and other people. So I have firsthand experience.  She was in the Midwest. My three siblings and I put her in a nursing home -- we’re very close and we all helped. We were at the nursing home a lot because nursing homes … don’t always give you the most individualized care. It’s …

It’s tough.

Very challenging. And heartbreaking. Unfortunately, this disease affects many, many people. There’s a saying that a family is only as well as its sickest member. (When dementia strikes) you’re trying to figure out what you can do to help. You can’t stop the progression -- that ain’t gonna happen. For other families out there dealing with this, I say get as much support as you can. Get as many family members involved, because caregivers burn out. It’s hard to be in that role 24/7. So get relief when you can. And try to keep a sense of humor. It can be painful and discouraging, but some of it is funny. That’s why I love the humor in this play. We didn’t sit around and cry all the time about my mother. We had our moments, sure, but … by and large we tried to make the best of a really tough situation. 

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